Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Review: Beer School

Since it is summer, it is time to start posting some reviews of the books I’ve been reading. Reading is the easy part; finding time to transform my thoughts into something useful—summer or not—is an entirely different proposition. But I’ll try. First up is Beer School, the story of the founding of Brooklyn Brewery. It is a story told by Steve Hindy and Tom Potter, Brooklyn’s two founders, with each taking their turn in the individual chapters of the book. There is a clear difference between the two voices in regards to tone and direction, but they do end up playing off each other well. As Tom puts it, “an even surface tone beats enthusiasm every time” (57). While he is discussing the construction of a business plan here, in many ways this is an apt description of the two partners, with Tom the “even surface tone” and Steve the voice of enthusiasm. Steve’s previous career as a correspondent serves him in good stead when telling Brooklyn’s story, but at times the hyperbole is, well, a bit much: “If you are going to start a business, you must be prepared for lonely moments of entrepreneurial terror, for stress and anxiety. There is little consolation in those moments. I haven’t slept soundly since I became an entrepreneur. But Tom and I have shared some experiences that only an entrepreneur can appreciate, and I know we both treasure the experience” (278). Oh my. This also comes at the end of a chapter Tom spends debunking the mythic image of the entrepreneur in the public imagination; thus, while Steve’s observations have merit, they nonetheless smack of solipsism. Still, Steve has his moments, like when talking about his interest in beer: “Money people make money. Money is different from art and beer. Art and beer can enrich your life; they can arouse your senses; they can inspire and liberate. Money is not by itself enjoyable” (154). It is observations like these that give Steve depth beyond his role as the public face of Brooklyn Brewery and save him from falling into the role of corporate cheerleader. Tom’s even business-speak does start a bit dry, but it open up as he warms to the topic; coupled with Steve’s flair, the two present the difficulties and disagreements with more candor than a single narrative voice could.

The practical elements of starting a business stood out more than I expected. They initially dub themselves Mr. Inside—Steve—and Mr. Outside—Tom—to help identify their respective roles in the fledgling operation, and document some of their miscommunications in this regard as well, providing insight into the importance of open communication when working together. We also get a good amount of information concerning the importance of constructing and implementing a business plan. Thus, “What might appear to be a mundane 40-page report is really the dramatic result of months of imagining the world anew. It’s the founders’ distilled brainstorm of strategy, structure, management, and motivation” (44). They also emphasize the value of research coupled with the practical knowledge necessary to implement their business plan in a successful manner. And one other solid piece of advice that, while simple even to me, bears repeating: “Get It On Paper.” Or, put more succinctly, “with a partnership agreement, if the relationship dissolves, there’s a mechanism in place to make it amicable and fair” (15). Offhand, I can think of one no-longer functioning Ohio brewery that might have benefitted from this advice.

I do like that Beer School details some of the personal history that most people never tend to discover. For example, everyone knows that Garrett Oliver is the brewmaster at Brooklyn. Yes, everyone. Even that guy you know who doesn’t like beer. And rightfully so—he’s a media darling, and TheBrewmaster’s Table and The Oxford Companion to Beer have only solidified that reputation. He’s witty and personable, and as Steve tells it, is fond of using a quote from the Blues Brothers to identify his role in the world of craft beer: “I’m on a mission from God” (220). Thus, we get the story of when Steve initially met Oliver in December 1987 at a meeting of the New York City Homebrewers Guild, and later, as Steve recounts, “In the early 1990s, as we began planning to finally build our brewery in Brooklyn, I began to talk to Garrett about coming to work for us” (31). Oliver was hired in 1994, the new brewery in Williamsburg opened on May 18, 1996, and the rest is history and, well, the rest of the book. But I liked hearing about Bill Moeller, their first brewmaster, who was a “fourth-generation German-American brewer whose grandfather had brewed beer in Brooklyn at the turn of the
Bill Moeller with Michael
Jackson; from here
last century” (27). He had worked for 35 years at C. Schmidt and Sons in Philadelphia; the job at Brooklyn was “the first time in my career that an owner has ever told me to make the best damn beer I can make” (28). The original recipe for Brooklyn Lager was put together by Bill, Steve, and Tom using “the notebooks of Bill’s grandfather” (28). And it was Bill that initially helped open doors for Steve and Tom: “Bill had contacts everywhere. We were delighted to take advantage of them. For his part, he was delighted to be working on a project for a really premium beer” (51). Bill simultaneous status in the beer industry and involvement in the burgeoning craft movement was an important part of the early transition from macro- to microbrewing in the United States—exactly the type of history I’d like to learn more about.

Other points worth noting include Brooklyn Brewery’s “great detour” (77) into distribution, as well as their foray into the dot-com revolution with While the distribution branch of the business started as a means to deliver their own beer, it ultimately included both imports and other craft beers, like Sierra Nevada. Thus, when Wine Enthusiast released a list of the 100 best beers in the world in October 1994, Steve and Tom “discovered that we distributed a strong majority of them” (95). We also learn about the industry, and the potential pitfalls of financing when moving from a regional to a national brand: “Pyramid Brewing was doing very well in the mid-1990s, enjoyed excellent organic growth, and was guided by a talented management team. When it raised $34 million in late 1995 on the promise of going national, it quickly spent most of its money in the futile attempt and saw its reputation erode from regional success to national failure. Pyramid’s shares went public at $19, and over the next 10 years they lost nearly 90 percent of their value. Pyramid has lately regained some positive momentum and still makes good beer, but the whole episode is a painful reminder that the business strategy needs to direct the financing and not the other way around” (142). While previously I was puzzled by Pyramid’s transformation, being that I was in mid-twenties during the time, I just abandoned Pyramid for one of the many other craft beers springing up in the Northwest. This explanation makes a lot of sense, though. After all, Red Hook’s “deal-with-the-devil” to achieve national distribution with Anheuser-Busch InBev fared only marginally better in regards to maintaining their reputation. Finally, Steve and Tom discuss some of the early New York microbrewers that came before them, like Matthew Reich, founder of New Amsterdam Brewery, who “pioneered the idea of contract brewing—contracting with an existing brewery to produce a beer for you” (212). They point out that one price of success is that others will “go to school on your business” (213), as they and others—like Jim Koch of Samuel Adams—did with Reich. Hence, as you’ve probably now gathered, the name of the book. While Reich wasn’t always gracious—in one interview he says of Brooklyn “I hope they fall flat on their faces. They have stolen every idea I ever had” (213)—others like Bill Newman of Albany Amber Beer, Jeff Ware of Dock Street Brewing, and Nat Collins of Woodstock Brewing exemplified the community spirit that still exists in craft brewing today.

So there’s a small snapshot of the book. There’s a whole lot more, and despite some of my earlier comments, it is both well-written and a good read. While the business language is at times a bit generic, the book offers a fascinating window into the early days of microbrewing on the East Coast, one I hope to learn more about soon.


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